Monday, October 15, 2012

Tochigi Gohyakumangoku Rice Harvest

I can't write about what this day meant to me without acknowledging Melinda Joe for the gracious invitation to participate in the rice harvest, organized by Shimazaki Shuzo. One day there will be a stronger bridge between the sake breweries in Japan and their admirers around the world. The careful, professional documentation and journalism from writers such as Melinda, who writes for the Japan Times, is vital to the rest of the world in terms getting a glimpse into the unique culture of sake. You can most easily find her work by following her on Twitter -- @MelindaJoe. Melinda's account of this day can be found here:

Short video of working in the soil can be found on YouTube:

I was told to bring boots, but to my dismay, the Sports Authority sporting goods store in Aomori had absolutely no size 11 boots/shoes/Crocs/flipflops -- zilch! So I did not come prepared, which was okay, but I had to do the work in my stocking feet!


What I can tell you about the rice is less significant than what I can tell you about the community that came together to harvest the rice, and the hospitality of the family who will brew sake from this rice. But I am a geek, and it's important to note that the rice is Gohyakumangoku variety. The most recent statistics I could find indicate that it is the second most popular rice, behind only Yamadanishiki, and accounted for 29.5% of the sake rice harvested in 2005. This famous rice is originally from Niigata, but is grown in Tochigi prefecture and elsewhere (Tochigi is adjacent to Niigata) and was officially designated in 1957. Resilient to cold, this sake rice (aka "sakamai") is often grown in areas not historically suitable for rice production. Because of the kernel's small size, this rice is usually milled to only to 50%, but because of its fruity aroma, this sakamai is highly prized for making ginjo and daiginjo sakes.

Community Effort

The day started at Shimazaki Shuzo itself where were were given instructions and also lead through some stretching exercises. It's worth noting there were dozens of volunteers present -- close to 100 -- and this includes entire families with small children working with sickles and tromping through the muddy rice fields doing the work alongside mom and dad.


When the work was done -- everyone was dog tired. We were grateful to get the harvest done the day before a typhoon was to arrive and even more grateful to be entertained back at the kura. There were new friendships forged over sake, a most delicious meal, and even live music at the very end of the evening.

I was there for most of the day, and very much appreciated Melinda's company as well as her friend Masumi. But when I got home, I had no trouble falling asleep!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

From Momokawa Brewing of Japan: The 2012 Nanbu Toji Guild Champion

From Momokawa Brewing of Japan: The 2012 Nanbu Toji Guild Champion. Of the 330 contestants at this year's competition, this sake won "Best in Show". Thanks to the hustling of Kyota Murai, he was able to find three bottles of this delicious sake that is not commercially available (except locally for special customers in Aomori, though not widely.) 

Yesterday I shared one bottle of the Champion with a few friends. They were not disappointed.

The sake has a seimaibuai of 35%. I went to the Tsunami Grill with my friend Hannah to share the sake with my friends who work there, only to have my friend Todd Eng, the Bar Master at Corkage next door, to have gone AWOL. But Jojo, Elaine, Charley and Dan each enjoyed an ounce or two in his absence! Later on at Nombe, I shared the rest of the Champion with Gil and his management team.

(Photography credit goes to Amanda Mathson)

I would describe the sake as delicate, yet mighty. It was compact, and I was surprised at the viscous, almost oily nature of the sake. Hannah kept trying to identify the nature of the oil, and settled on mackerel. Indeed, mackerel is a staple in Aomori, with squid being the only fish that brings more industry to where this particular sake is brewed. Jizakes like this are brewed with tradition of the local cuisine in mind, to compliment the cuisine, so Hannah's insight was keen.

Notes of anise, banana, and tropical fruit came to mind. But the mouth-feel was what I returned to, and the delicate yet firm nature of the sake. Sake this good is elusive, and descriptions often limit the appreciation of the sake. It was a masterpiece and it's just enough to enjoy the sake with friends who appreciate greatness when they taste it!

PS: for background on the nature of Toji Guilds, please see this summary:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Momokawa Brewing of Japan

I write now from my favorite American city, San Francisco. I have several weeks before brewing season begins in Kyushu with gusto, and so now I have time to reflect on my recent travel experiences.

One very prominent day for me recently was the occasion of visiting my dear friend Kyota Murai, the scion of the family behind Momokawa Brewing of Japan in Aomori prefecture. It was the Murai family which gave SakeOne in Oregon the assistance we needed to begin brewing operations 15 years ago. Visiting Momokawa in Aomori was one of the most special experiences. It was by drinking their premium sakes 15 years ago that lit the fuse for my devotion for nihonshu. A passion for their sakes was renewed thanks to the time and attention Kyota and the team at Momokawa Brewing in Aomori.

The Murai family behind Momokawa has been brewing sake for since the Edo period. A fire ravaged the city of Oirase in the late 1800’s, destroying every building and the recorded history of Momokawa that predates the year of the current structure (1889). By capacity Momokawa is one of the 50 largest sakes breweries of the 1166 (approximate number) still in operation. Their business has achieved the ISO 9001:2008 certification, one of the first breweries in Japan to accomplish this feat in 2002.

The toji (brewmaster) at Momokawa is the most honorable Mr. Yoshio Koizumi. Koizumi-san has been brewing sake with great distinction for many years and has earned a lifetime achievement award identifying him as one of five great brewers, winemakers, and distillers in all of Japan. Momokawa has won a gold medal at the Nanbu Toji Sake Competition for a record 64 years... consecutively. This is a record of unmatched achievement amongst the 330 sake breweries represented in this most prestigious sake brewers guild.

Here I am meeting Mr. Cheong Hwanseo, President of Momokawa Brewing of Japan.

Here I am in front of the world's largest sugidama or cedar ball, measuring 2.2 meters in diameter and weighing 1,100 lbs. The sugidama adorns the entrance of the sake brewery and signifies the role Japanese cedar plays in the production and drinking of sake. At the end of each year the withered sugidama is replaced with a fresh, green one as an offering of thanks to the gods for the previous year's yield.

After a tour of the operations I was given the chance to taste through a selection of 12 of their delicious sakes.

Meeting Mr. Cheong Hwanseo with Kyota.

It was such an amazing day, not just one of the best days in Japan, but one of the best days of my life. I am forever grateful for my friendship with Kyota Murai, his family, and the team at Momokawa Brewing of Japan for making my morning visiting the kura so very special.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Eleven Fun Facts About Sake

In honor of Nihonshu No Hi, the Day of Sake...I present Eleven Fun Facts About Sake

Why did I choose eleven facts to highlight about sake?

Eleven. Magic number. Just ask Sir Nigel Tufnel

1. Sake, or saké (saw-kay) is the oldest known spirit in the world. Saké was first produced in China in 4800 BC. 

2. To your health! Unlike wine, premium sake contains no sulfites, additives or preservatives and is gluten-free and tannin-free as well. Furthermore sake has about 50% less acid than most wines, making it easier to tolerate for some. Premium saké contains virtually no congeners – the impurities and byproducts of fermentation in alcoholic beverages thought to cause hangovers. Health-conscious consumers are only now discovering these unique features and benefits to saké as a category. 

3. Premium sake is almost always served chilled in the west, as saké is sometimes heated to mask impurities. You wouldn’t put a glass of champagne in the microwave, would you? 

4. Saké has about 400 flavor components (aromatic esters) compared to only about 200 for wine. 

5. There are 20 amino acids in sake, a greater variety than is found in any other type of alcoholic beverage. By comparison wine has 14. 

6. In strict Japanese tradition, a person must never pour his or her own saké. To do so, especially in a formal setting, is implying that your host is incapable of taking care of you. 

7. Saké consumption has fallen almost every year from 1976 to present, while at the same time premium saké has the fast growing category in the USA. This is due to recent Japanese generations having more consumer choices than their parents as well as a fascination with categories and brands from beyond Japan. 

8. Sake, as it is commonly known, is also sometimes referred to as nihonshu (“Japanese saké”), or even seishu (“clear or clean sake”). A saké bar in Japan may not actually sell any nihonshu. 

9. You can’t really cellar or age the vast majority of premium sakes. After 1.5 years the best nihonshu in the world will begin to taste like the worst. Fresher is typically better. 

10. Saké has as much as five-seven times the amino acids than that of wine, including at least three times as much glutamic acid, which is the indicator for what is known as umami , which means "pleasant savory taste" and is considered to be one of the five basic tastes together with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Saké is also lower than wine in tart components such as tartaric and malic acids...This means that sake pairs extremely well with food, regardless of the cuisine. If you enjoy a Burgundy with something other than French food, then you might give sake a try with something beyond just Japanese food.

11. One in every five glasses of “wine” or beverages in that same alcohol level served in the world is actually saké! 

Kanpai! to these many interesting qualities, not the least of which is premium saké is delicious!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Kyoto: Magic City of Serendipity & Nihonshu

I very much liked my arrival in Kyoto yesterday. I can now cross a few more items off of my Japan "bucket list", but I was unprepared for the serendipity that came my way last evening.

I have arrived in Kyoto last night and fell in love with the city. Kyoto is much more like San Francisco or or Barcelona, whereas Tokyo is faster and more commercial like New York or Madrid. In fact, a good hybridization of the two is London, but that's a post for another day.

I am most pleased with the lodging, though I imagine it is not for everyone. I stayed in a capsule hotel last night! Though my capsule is more like a container and less like a coffin. It is reminiscent of the European style of hotels that I have always loved, such as the Ace Hotel in PDX/SEA/NYC: 

Not that I am spending much time in my hotels anyway!

The serendipity was almost too much to process, as I know so very few people in Japan, but I made new friends last night, the first of which is Chris Pellegrini. Neither Chris nor I had been to Kyoto before, though Chris has been here for years. After two hours at the sake bar, we get around to asking each other our names and we both recognize the other person from following each other on Twitter!! Go figure! 

Chris and I both chose to go to one of my very favorite bars in the Universe and a bar I can't recommend highly enough: Sake Bar Asakura 日本酒 BAR あさくら

Yoshihito-san is very intelligent and passionate about nihonshu, and can demonstrate this gift easily for beginning and advanced students of sake. I left his bar last night not only learning something about sake, but appreciating his service to his customers. I can't recommend him highly enough and it is my strong encouragement that more westerners have a chance to meet him and listen to what he has to share.

He gave me a new appreciation for koshu! I tried a 16 and a 20 year old koshu that tasted so close to a fine sherry that was remarkable. Key point made to me: europeans, men and women, who hale from a wine region in Europe find passion and common ground between the sexes on koshu than any other type of nihonshu -- according to the Asakura's experience in his bar.

I enjoyed a 40% polish daiginjo that was so unlike most any daiginjo I have had, due to the dry/earthy/mineral taste -- a delicious taste! Asakura hunts down unusual sakes and uses them to challenge perceptions about what sake is, or should be.

I also greatly enjoyed three bottle of sake brewed from Watari Bune rice -- none of them from Ibaraki! Lo and behold, watari bune rice was identified growing in other prefectures, too. It's funny how the full story behind watari bune rice isn't told, but then again, what should we expect from salespeople who care first and last about sales goals and who don't have a commitment to selling and marketing with integrity? Trusting some sake sales people is like trusting the car dealer to be honest with you about your car. Does this work for anyone anymore? Unfortunately, some people just blindly follow the so-called experts due to a lack of information or at least checks and balances.

The night ended with more yamahais, kimotos, muroka namazake genshus than are photographed here. It was a grand tour of sake, with these bottles really shining through. The only sad thing, to me, is that virtually none of the sakes i have enjoyed in Japan are available in the US. In Oregon, consumers see 300 when Japan sees 10,000. In New York, consumers fare better -- I have heard that 2,000 sakes are registered in the state of New York. Someday this will change, but only through effective and honest exportation, distribution, marketing and sale of sake outside of Japan. 

I can't wait to learn more from Asakura-san, starting with dinner and a party tonight. Please visit his bar when you come to Japan. Nihonshu is his "ikigai", his great passion, and I would do well to follow his example in the earnest promotion of nihonshu -- in English and Japanese no less. What a sake stud (pictured in white below).


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Kagoshima Prefecture Shochu Bonanza

200 shochus presented at one event. The bounty of the Kagoshima prefecture. 300 Japanese. One stunned gaijin!

This was an extraordinary event. I learned a great deal, developed greater appreciation of shochu, and lived to tell the tale. For the record, I only tasted about 20 shochu. I appreciate that no one was spitting their shochu out, so I tasted mine and did not expectorate as you would at a more official sake or wine tasting. As they say, "When in Fukuoka..."

Kagoshima seems like fascinating place. The shinkansen (bullet train) was furthered to Kagoshima last year and that has cut the travel time to Kagoshima down considerably. Thus the reason for this event: to tempt the good people of Fukuoka with their considerable shochu bounty for the benefit of travel, tourism, trade...and consumption.  

Shochu and sake are from the same family and they should be better friends. After all, they share the same mother (Japan) but shochu is not limited to rice as nishonhsu. Last night, I had shochu distilled from rice, wheat, sweet potato, sugar cane (“black sugar” shochu or molasses) and buckwheat.

If you’ve been to the Church of Sake, but didn’t get any religion, I beseech thee: before you leave the church, the minister has some shochu he would like you to try.

The virtue of shochu; versus practically any other spirit; lies beyond taste alone--which is always going to inspire debate from drinking enthusiasts, especially those that worship at the altar of nihonshu. For me, great merit is found in how versatile it is in presentation. 

Do you prefer your shochu chilled, room temperature, on the rocks, with water, with tea, with juice? From what grain or tuber? Most of this variety in distilling and presentation is anathema to a sake zealot such as me, but they are acceptable methods to enjoy shochu.

I found a favorite shochu last night. I was surprised to learn it is distilled from brown sugar. Then again, I love brown sugar. ...The tall bottle on the left was the one that hooked me. Hard to describe, it is fiercer than sake and gentler than whiskey.

Thanks to my mates Chris and Tony for teaching me a thing or two about shochu and serving as interpreters. For the record, I woke up this morning strong as an ox and remember everything that happened to me. Especially the daiginjo I used to wash down dinner at one of the better izakayas I have ever been to. But that's another story.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ginjo vs Junmai: Don't Fall Prey To Polish Bigotry!

When I drink sake, I typically prefer a ginjo-shu versus a junmai-shu, but not always. Last night, on an izakaya crawl in Fukuoka, I was reminded of an important lesson: don't be a Seimai Buai Bigot.

Background: Seimai Buai is the % of rice that is left over during the milling process, before the brewing of the rice actually begins. You may not comprehend anything on a bottle of sake, but if you see a number between 50-60% it's Ginjo-grade (usually more deliciously, but not by rule) and 60%-85% is Junmai grade. 

With sake rice, or sakamai, the more the rice is polished the more lipids, minerals, proteins, fats, albumins are removed as they exist on the outside of the rice grain. On the inside of the rice we have a heart of starch, and that starch is the friend of the sake brewer for the starchy center, or shinpaku, helps create delicious sake! If the rice is milled less, more of these impurities are left behind. The sake then is less expensive to produce as there is more yield.

The bottle pictures here illustrate my point. The green/yellow label is a junmai with a 75% polish, the white label is a ginjo with a 55% polish. If this is all I know about the sakes, 9 times out of 10 (if not more) I am in the mood for a ginjo. But to my pleasant surprise, and the surprise of my guests, the junmai was much more delicious. It wasn't even close. Both sakes were bottled in that last 4 months, but the 75% junmai was...fantastic! A clear and easy choice, and a more affordable choice, too.

In the USA it is rare to find a junmai with a polish that is on the label as being >70%. I can think of only two or three off the top of my head. However, sake professionals should market or stock examples of good sake with a > 70% on the label -- it's an important educational tool! Don't pre-judge a sake based on the Seimai Buai alone! Rather, judge that sake up and down like a scornful Southern Baptist preacher if it doesn't taste good, regardless of Seimai Buai. In other words, don't judge a book by it's cover.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Shimbashi Station: Izakaya Mecca

These sakes are a gift to mankind from a higher power. Okay, I actually stole the sakes...Don't tell Zeus. 

Sixteen sakes and everyone blessed one was not only new to me, every sake was amazing. I can't easily wrap my head around this, but suffice it to say this was one of the best nights enjoying sake in the last 20 years and not one easily matched...though I will endeavor to try.

What is a greater gift are my friends Ted and Etsuko, who met for dinner in what is a hotbed for izakaya-style dining in Tokyo near Shimbashi Station. If you are at all curious about sake, you should really consider a tour of a sake brewery in Japan. Etsuko operates a business offering sake tours and her ability to speak perfect English and Japanese + her great intelligence and passion for sake make her the ideal tour guide! I give them both my highest recommendation

Our server this evening was a great host. The food was outstanding and he gave us a lot of attention. We were fortunate to be here this night, for there was a national holiday keeping folks at home. Let that be a lesson to enjoy what might normally be busy izakayas that are open on holiday! Oh, and the server gave me a bottle of water that a sake brewery markets and it was very satisfying: server -- the grandchildren I will never have will sing songs around the campfire about his kindness -- gave me such a gift...A huge fold out map -- published ten years ago, so not entirely up to date -- of every sake brewery in Japan!!!...I can't tell you how awesome this map is, but I will show you on another time.

For you sake geeks, we tried namazakes (no pasteurization -- very rare); hiyaoroshi sakes (pasteurized once, seasonal autumnal sake); and many sakes brewed by the next generation of brewers. Thanks to Etsuko and Ted who knew a great deal about all of these mysterious sakes -- sakes that I have never tried before, as they are not exported. No fair keeping the good stuff to yourselves, Japan!!!

A favorite, both in taste and concept, was the sake brewed with a blue tint (achieved by *not* adding anything to the sake such as coloring, rather, through cold-brewing and with rice flour) called "Blue Hawaii". The owner of the brewery is from the music industry and actually invited a highschool class to come to brewery and actually brew one sake (not seen here) macho is that? sake stud!?!

Here's to Ted and Etsuko! It was one of the best nights I ever spent drinking and socializing. Good gravy we had so much fun! Kanpai!!!